Integrated watershed management is a complex process that seeks to coordinate and harmonize the interests, actions and impacts of the different actors competing for the natural elements produced in the ecosystem. The main one is water, which, as a finite natural resource, elemental for life and the axis of watershed functioning, occupies a central place in the management objectives.
Generating sustainability in the territory has to do with the construction of harmonious relations between social, economic and environmental aspects. Achieving this depends on a management model with the capacity to manage, in a participatory and concerted manner, the interests and actions that, in a contradictory manner, operate in the territory, generating negative impacts on the water resource and inequities in its access and use.
In compliance with its constitutional mandate, the Panama Canal, through the Environmental Policy and Protection Division, has been developing actions for water conservation for 20 years, ensuring both its quantity and quality, through an integrated watershed management based on the construction of participatory spaces for coordination, coordination and intervention. This model has allowed the construction of strategic alliances between the actors interacting in the territory, consolidating an unprecedented model of watershed management in the country.
The integrated management of the Panama Canal Watershed (CHCP) is the result of a participatory process, based on interdisciplinary research that made it possible to understand the type of interaction between the population and its environment from the perspective of the different areas of knowledge.
The knowledge acquired provided evidence to implement programs based on the dimensions of sustainability that would have an impact on the transformation of the development models traditionally implemented in the Watershed.
The model is based on the concept of sustainability and contemplates six integrating axes (see table) that allow guiding the work of programs and projects from a holistic perspective, taking into account the complexity of the territory. It should be noted that the model is a constructive process developed in different stages, starting with the social and environmental dimensions of sustainability.
In the social dimension, work began on the organization and consolidation of the participatory platform of the CHCP as a body for consultation and consultation for water governance, promoting, in turn, the formation of human capital.
In the environmental dimension, actions are being developed that are focused on building an environmental culture for the conservation and monitoring of natural aspects, especially water.
And in the economic dimension, productive associative models are promoted that promote green enterprises, generating income for families living in the watershed and improving their quality of life.
The interrelation of these dimensions, and the understanding that it is not possible to ensure the conservation of the Watershed’s water resources without achieving a balance between them, recently led the Panama Canal to increase the scope of its interventions in the territory. Today, greater emphasis is placed on the social and economic development of the communities, managing projects that contribute to improving water supply and sanitation conditions, satisfying food needs through family agriculture, strengthening the identity of the communities with the territory where they live, and generating sustainable business models, among others.
Watershed participatory platform
The strength and potential of the management model rests on the participatory platform as a space for coordination, coordination of interests and implementation of concrete actions. Its flexible structure allows the participation of different actors (institutional, private sector, academia, non-governmental organizations, and community organizations) in the sustainable management of the territory. In strategic terms, it is a space for mediation and interaction for the functional and sustainable alignment of interests and visions of actors competing for water. A structure for water governance, without spaces for participation, will have little control over the actions of the actors and, as a consequence, less capacity to mitigate impacts on the water resource.
The participatory platform focuses on six (6) working water regions, and is made up of 27 Local Committees, six Watershed Advisory Councils, and a Network of Young Environmentalists. These organizations are defined as local and regional instances established for an adequate socio-environmental governance of the Watershed’s territories.
The contribution of this platform to the sustainable development model is fundamental and its success is based on this platform, because the Canal defined a vision that contemplates strategies with a participatory and horizontal methodological approach in which the gradual and growing role of the communities as managers of their own local development has been key, through a process of social construction that facilitates a vision of their territories based on a work unit that is the concept of watershed, sub-watershed, and micro-watershed.
Challenges for water governance
Two decades after the reversion of the Canal, we can count as progress the gradual evolution of a water management model with a strong participatory component of those who live in the CHCP, which has managed to conserve and recover strategic areas for water conservation.
However, important challenges persist for the integrated and sustainable management of this important region. Among them, urban and peri-urban growth exerts pressure on the Watershed and its protected areas, which places us before another challenge such as strengthening participatory models in urban and lake areas within the Watershed, for which it is important to count on the contributions of academia and scientific research that adjust to the complexities of urban and lake social capital.
Municipal decentralization brings with it opportunities and challenges; in this sense, the participatory platform should be positioned as an allied mechanism of local governments for Watershed management, always preserving the principle of transparent collaboration with citizens.
A final challenge is linked to accentuating efforts for the articulation of new emerging actors who, from a logic of social management of the territories, have contributed to the cohesion of organizations in an intergenerational perspective: women and youth.
The author is a sociologist and interdisciplinary specialist in the Environmental Policy and Protection Division.